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Gerson, M. (2001). The Ritual of Couples Therapy: The Subversion of Autonomy. Contemp. Psychoanal., 37(3):453-470.

(2001). Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 37(3):453-470

The Ritual of Couples Therapy: The Subversion of Autonomy

Mary-Joan Gerson, Ph.D.

It is the Holi Festival in Kishan Gari, North India. Marriott, the British anthropologist, reports it thusly:

Now a full year has passed in my investigations, and the Festival of Love was again approaching.… I began to see the pandemonium of Holi falling into an extraordinarily regular social ordering. But this was an order precisely inverse to the social and ritual principles of routine life.…

Who were those smiling men whose shins were being most mercilessly beaten by the women? The boldest beaters in this veiled battalion were often in fact the wives of the farmers; low-caste field laborers.… “Go and bake bread!” teased one farmer, egging his assailant on. “Do you want some seed from me?” shouted another flattered victim, smarting under the blows, but standing his ground. Six Brahman men in their fifties, pillars of village society, limped past in panting flight from the quarter staff wielded by a massive young Bhangin, sweeper of their latrines.…

Here indeed were the many village kinds of love confounded—respectful regard for parents and patrons; the idealized affection for brothers, sisters, and comrades; the longing of man for union with the divine; and rugged lust of sexual mates—all broken suddenly out of their usual, narrow channels by a simultaneous increase of intensity. Boundless, unilateral love of every kind flooded over the usual compartmentalization and indifference among separated castes and families. [Turner, 1969, p. 187]

We are not in Kishan Gari. Our therapeutic setting is interior, restrained, and private, but of course no less defined and bound by a particular cultural context. How relevant is ritual to our therapeutic process? Anthropologists consider ritual to be an essential cultural form. Embedded in an American pragmatic tradition, however, where ritual connotes “smells and bells” (Oden, 1998) and with our current psychoanalytic emphasis on coconstruction, we are a long way from the healing magic of the shamanistic tradition.

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